Saviour of the universe

Flash back to escapism's pure roots

Published: Mar 09 2015, 01:01:am

Friday, December 5, 1980
FLASH GORDON. Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Michael Allin. Based on characters created by Alex Raymond. Music by Howard Blake and Queen. Directed by Mike Hodges. Running time: 111 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: some violence, occasional coarse and suggestive language.
IT APPEARS THAT THE BIG ape taught the big producer some valuable lessons. Appearances are important. So are attitudes.
    If Dino De Laurentiis learned anything from his disastrous 1976 encounter with King Kong, it would have to be that nostalgia has as much to do with look and feel as with plot line. As a result, filmgoers are far better served by his current attempt to prove that everything old is new again, Flash Gordon.
    Flash, like Kong, was a product of a simpler time. In remaking Kong's story, the De Laurentiis team made the mistake of updating not only the hardware, but the characters and their outlooks.
    Merian Cooper's nightmarishly touching tale of a beauty and her beast got lost amongst the wisecracks, self-righteous posturing and corporate-greed metaphors. The De Laurentiis Kong was a failure because, in the final analysis, it wasn't any fun.
    Flash Gordon is fun. It looks good and, on the whole, feels right. This time around the Italian mogul's men had the good sense not to monkey with the old spaceman's Saturday matinee soul.
    Consider, for a moment, whence came our hero. Flash Gordon was born on the morning of January 7, 1934, a new feature in the Sunday comics section. Created by Alex Raymond, he was all-American, right-thinking and instinctively noble.
    Full of innocent American self-confidence, he rocketed into space to do battle with the forces of an explicitly oriental Ming the Merciless, absolute monarch of an enslaved planet called Mongo.
    Flash, a man of action, represented positive (if simple-minded) values. He entertained people who were living through a depression and in a world lurching toward global war.
    Flash Gordon, in both the colour comics and his two subsequent movie serial incarnations (1936 and 1938), was pure escapism. The new Flash Gordon, to its credit, succeeds in its attempt to be nothing more.
    The look is there. Danilo Donati, the Oscar-winning costumer responsible for bringing some of Federico Fellini's most bizarre dreams to life — among them 1969's Satyricon (1969), The Clowns (1970), Amarcord (1973) and Casanova (1976) — was in charge of production design. His Mongo, a collection of impressively futuristic cities, extreme environments, imperial palaces, control rooms, corridors and space vehicles, is eye-filling and satisfyingly other-worldly.
    Dropped into this universe are Dr. Hans Zarkov (Israeli actor Chaim Topol), the only man on Earth who understands that our planet is in danger of attack; travel agent Dale Arden (Edmonton-born Melody Anderson, a sort of slimline Stockard Channing); and New York Jets quarterback Flash Gordon (Playgirl Magazine gatefold boy Sam J. Jones).
    In developing his story, screenwriter Lorenzo (King Kong) Semple, Jr. seems to have paid more attention to Howard Ziehm's 1973 parody feature Flesh Gordon than to the original screen serials. This week [December, 1980], the film's B.C. rating was revised from General to Mature (it's PG in the U.S.), a more accurate reflection of modern Mongo's population of sexual politicians.
    Dale, of course spends most of her time being prepared for a forced marriage to the odious Emperor Ming (Max Von Sydow). Ming's daughter, Princess Aura (Italian screen beauty Ornella Muti), risks the imperial wrath to save Flash's life, whisking him off to her private palace.
    Similarly, Kala (Mariangela Melato), lieutenant to Klytus (Peter Wyngarde), the sinister chief of Ming's secret police, defies her boss to save Zarkov. Fortunately, the Earthlings' attitudes are still forthright, foursquare, midwestern and middle-American.
    Dale, in keeping with the times, is allowed the occasional quick quip (not to mention some deadly karate kicks in the direction of the baddies). Flash, on the other hand, is just another dumb jock. Good-hearted, good-intentioned, good-looking, but still dumb as a doorknob.
    Director Mike (The Terminal Man) Hodges approaches his subject with just the right amount of tongue in cheek. He uses Flash's good-natured slowness to create one of the film's most original and funny scenes.
     Ming has just ordered Dale prepared for his imperial pleasure.
    "She's with me," says Flash, moving to protect his woman. Ming's special meanies move in, and the Earthman is getting the worst of it until Zarkhov, responding to a sudden inspiration, lobs a football-shaped container to our hero.
    Now, Flash is back in the game, shouting numbers and confusing the hell out of his attackers. Dale leaps up like a cheerleader and, on the sidelines, the impressionable Princess Aura falls head over heels in love with our daring and resourceful hero.
    Pleasant as it is, the film is not without a few serious flaws. Despite a budget of over $20 million, its mattework is substandard. (Matting is the process used to marry scenic elements — models and actors for example — that are photographed separately but are supposed to be seen together on the screen. We expect all post-Star Wars mattes to be perfect.)
    I also expected the Hawkmen, a race of bellicose, warrior birds, to have better-functioning wings. For the most part, bluff Prince Vultan (British bluffster Brian Blessed) and his flying legions looked like so many mechanical bats.
    The first of the 1980 Christmas pictures, Flash Gordon is better entertainment than I expected, a family-oriented fantasy that respects its B-movie origins. It's not a great film, but it's good enough.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1980. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Casting something of a pall over Ornella Muti's 60th birthday celebrations is her recent conviction for aggravated fraud. Last Wednesday (February 25), an Italian court sentenced the actress and jewellery entrepreneur to eight months in prison, or a €30,000 fine (about $34,000 US). The court decision came as a result of a lawsuit filed by Pordenone's Teatro Verdi, claiming that Muti presented it with a fake medical certificate to get out of an engagement, for which she had been paid €25,000. Instead, she travelled to St. Petersburg to attend a charity reception, where she dined with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
    Though seen only rarely in American movies (most recently in Woody Allen's 2012 To Rome with Love), Muti has enjoyed a successful career in Europe, with over 90 features to her credit. Her Canadian-born Flash Gordon co-star Melody Anderson went in a different direction. Playing Dale Arden was not a breakthrough role for the young TV actress. In 1995, she retired from the entertainment business, returned to school, and earned a Masters of Social Work degree from New York University. Currently a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Anderson is in private practice with offices in Manhattan and West Los Angeles. On her website, Counseling by Melody, she describes the work she now does.
    Despite reports from 2010 that Michael Eisner's director son Breck was developing a Flash Gordon 3D project, the most recent live-action incarnation of the character was in the 2007-2008 Flash Gordon TV series, filmed on location in Vancouver. In a fine bit of coincidental continuity, the title role was played by Eric Johnson, who was born in Melody Anderson's hometown, Edmonton.